The big casting news of the week has been that non-other than Michael Fassbender is reportedly signed-up to appear in (and co-produce) the upcoming big screen adaptation of the popular video game franchise Assassin’s Creed.
Now as I’ve mentioned before on the site, films based on video games have endured more than a bumpy history as far as quality is concerned (the fact that the dedicated Rotten Tomatoes list peaks with Final Fanatasy: The Spirits Within at 44% probably tells you all you need to know on the matter). So the news that critic-darling Fassbender has gotten involved with Ubisoft’s first big cinema venture has turned a lot of heads this week.
The film will be the first project by video game company Ubisoft’s brand new film division, having decided that they wanted full creative control of their properties heading to the silver screen. Hopefully with Fassbender on board this will work out better than when Square tried a similar set-up to produce The Spirits Within, which despite capturing that lofty 44%, essentially bankrupted ‘Square Pictures’ (although that did have an awful lot of talent onboard itself).
This encouraging news about the Assassin’s Creed adaptation, along with the early news of a Deus Ex film in the works, got me thinking about the video game related movie projects that seem to have fallen by the wayside over the last few years. Several high-profile films based on video game franchises seem to have been precariously stuck in limbo for years now, so I thought I’d take a quick look back over three of the biggest and see what’s gone wrong.
Few titles have impacted the medium of video games in the last decade quite like the Halo franchise. Due to its great critical response and extraordinary commercial success (it is after all a multi-billion dollar series), it comes as no surprise that the idea of a cinema release generating similarly big-bucks has proved an enticing one for Microsoft.
The series has already inspired a handful of novels and a collection of CGI and animé shorts which comprise the two hour running time of Halo Legends, and a live action web series is due to begin in the Autumn in the run-up to the release of Halo 4, but a big screen transition for the series’ protagonist Master Chief has long been Microsoft’s main goal for the franchise outside of the games themselves.
The road to the big screen started back in 2005, when former Columbia Pictures president Peter Schlessel began championing the project, and despite no backing thus far from any major studio, Microsoft hired British writer Alex Garland to pen the screenplay for a cool million dollars. His latest screen-credit at the time was 28 Days Later, and he’d soon work with Boyle once again to write the screenplay for (of course one of Ian’s favourites) Sunshine (Editor’s note: Goddamnfuckingright – Ian), and most recently wrote the script for the upcoming Judge Dredd comeback, Dredd.
After the fairly ballsy move of paying for a million dollar script without any studio backing in place, Microsoft continued their ballsy manoeuvres by trying to sell the film to every major film studio (delivering the screenplay to each by couriers dressed in full Master Chief attire, helmet and all) in a deal that essentially offered up no risk on Microsoft’s part what-so-ever. They wanted an even cooler $10 million, along with 15% of grosses.
Eventually 20th Century Fox and Universal agreed to partner-up to produce the film, and all was looking rosy for the big budget adaptation with a dream team of Peter Jackson and Neill Blomkamp lined up as executive producer and director respectively (after a brief spell with Guillermo Del Toro at the helm, before he left to work on Hellboy II instead). The pair have since shown their sci-fi chops on a small budget with the fantastic, Oscar-nominated District 9, so the thought of a huge-scale sci-fi epic by the same duo (and we know Jackson can do epic) seemed almost too good to be true.
…and it turns out it was.
One rewrite in 2006 and a lot of stop-starting of pre-production later and the project fell swiftly into development hell with studios threatening to back out left, right and centre. After the delays and concerns of spiralling development costs, Fox were first to threaten to pull the plug unless the first-dollar deals in place for Jackson, Schlessel and Jackson’s producing partner Fran Walsh were scrapped, or Fox would simply walk away from the project. Having already thrown millions at the production and now worried about losing their partner studio, Universal issued the same ultimatum. The three (unsurprisingly) declined this ultimatum, and that was that.
There have been reports since that Dreamworks may have tried to take up the project, with Steven Spielberg even attached as producer at one point, but all’s been quiet on the film-front for the Halo franchise for a few years now. The brand-name alone would seemingly guarantee a hit, but with millions already down the drain in an effort to get the Chief onto the big screen, it seems this one is something of a poisoned chalice.
In 2007, 2K Boston (now Irrational Games) and game designer Ken Levine released BioShock, a spiritual successor to the classic game System Shock, to immense critical acclaim. The game is particularly renowned for its gorgeous setting in the fictional underwater dystopian metropolis of Rapture, a place heavily stylised to fit in wonderfully with the game’s alternate late 50s/early 60s timeline. The story goes that this underwater haven was envisioned to be a utopia for the progression of science, where the greatest cultural and scientific minds could work free from the oppression of government, religion or any other bothersome factor of the outside world. New technologies and advancements allowed people to begin altering and ‘improving’ their DNA to acquire super-human abilities and… Well long story short, it didn’t end well down there, and the hero of the game is a survivor of a plane that crash-landed at sea who inadvertently stumbles upon the lost city below the waves.
It sounds like there’s enough promising material there to make a pretty decent movie out of, and that’s exactly what the game’s publisher Take Two and Universal Studios decided too back in 2008. Originally, the film was to be directed by Gore Verbinski, fresh off the back of his run with the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise (before being replaced by Rob Marshall for the fourth) and written by three-time Oscar-nominated scribe John Logan.
Once again it was all sounding so promising, everything sounded like it was coming together nicely, but then the usual issue of big-scale filmmaking reared its head – budget concerns. The film was at first to be made in time for a 2010 release, but worries regarding the cost of production put the film on hold while Universal tried to come up with solutions to their cash problem. In the end, the only way Universal could see the movie’s budget being kept under control was to film overseas. However, Verbinski was also committed at the time to direct Rango, so had to pull out as director on BioShock in 2009.
In 2010, the film was back in pre-production with Juan Carlos Fresnadillo (of 28 Weeks Later) at the helm, and Verbinski reduced to a role as producer, but more budget concerns cast further doubt on the future of the project. However Ken Levine did say of the film later in the year that “I will say that it is still an active thing and it’s something we are actively talking about and actively working on.”
So… they were active then.
Unfortunately, the reason the BioShock movie never saw the light of day seems to have mostly ended up being down to the fact that they were determined to retain the integrity of the franchise, and were pushing to maintain an R rating in the States. Verbinski later said that they just couldn’t find the required investment for an R rated film, and speaking to ComingSoon.net early last year he said: “I wasn’t really interested in pursuing a PG-13 version, because the R rating is inherent. Little Sisters and injections and the whole thing.” “I just wanted to really, really make it a movie where, four days later, you’re still shivering and going, ‘Jesus Christ!’”
Sounds good to me, but unfortunately BioShock remains another production that may never come to anything, although Ken Levine did state in May of this year in an interview with Edge magazine that they are hopeful of the film getting made at some point, “It’s all about the stars aligning. We’re still focusing on it, but it hasn’t consumed us.” So there may be hope, but I wouldn’t hold your breath just yet.
As the most recent of these three film projects, it perhaps comes as no surprise that this one has the most hope of actually being made at some point in the near future, but it’s hard to tell precisely when the Uncharted movie will finally be ready to go.
If you’re new to Uncharted, basically think a modern-day Indiana Jones and you’re pretty much there, and in terms of how good the source material is for its transition to film, well, I’ll leave that one up to Andy, but fair to say it is a particularly cinematic set of video games.
After lengthy speculation that a film adaptation was in the works, and lead designer Richard Lemarchand giving a classic “no comment” on the matter, Columbia Pictures confirmed its existence and it was announced in June 2009 that an Uncharted movie had indeed been in development for about a year and a half. Later that year, Columbia presidents Doug Belgrad and Matt Tolmach announced that David O. Russell (then working on The Fighter) was to write and direct ‘Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune’, based on the first game in the series.
Following a rather hopeful campaign by geek-favourite Nathan Fillion to get a chance to play the leading man Nathan Drake (a campaign Russell was apparently entirely unaware of when questioned), it was reported that it would in fact be Mark Wahlberg stepping into the role of the wise-cracking adventurer.
In October 2010 in an interview with MTV, Wahlberg said that the script was currently being written by Russell, and that he hoped that filming would get underway in the summer of 2011.
In fact the plan was looking particularly good on this one: reuniting Wahlberg with regular collaborator Russell (having directed Wahlberg in Three Kings and I Heart Huckerbees as well as The Fighter), and according to Wahlberg both Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci were along for the ride as well: “I’m obviously in whatever David wants to do but the idea of it is so off the charts: De Niro being my father, Pesci being my uncle. It’s not going to be the watered-down version, that’s for sure.”
Unfortunately, as you’ve probably noticed, the summer of 2011 has come and gone and you’d probably be aware if this high-profile a movie was being made, so what happened?
Well in May of last year, Russell left the director’s chair due to ‘creative differences’ (that old chestnut), and not long after Columbia gave the gig to Neil Burger (most recently of Limitless) instead. Then in July, Burger revealed that he was in fact re-writing the film from scratch. Also, Wahlberg was never ‘officially’ attached to the project, but was just assumed that he would be a part of ‘whatever David wants to do’. Well with David no longer on the project, there’s now no guarantee that Wahlberg will be playing Drake after all. Burger said himself: “Until the screenplay is written you never know who’s going to be acting in it or not. But there are a lot of good actors out there who even look like Nathan Drake and who could do it.” (With Burger’s ties to Limitless, it’s crossed my mind that Bradley Cooper might not be a bad shout for the leading role – he’s perhaps not as good an actor all round as Wahlberg but I feel he may fit the mould of Nathan Drake quite well. Anyway, moving on from my speculation…)
Not a lot more has been said about the Uncharted film since Burger took the helm. IMDb still has it listed as ‘currently scripting’. However, very recently, in fact last month, producer Avi Arad spoke to IFC about the project while promoting The Amazing Spider-Man: “I think what will happen with ‘Uncharted’ is that it will be the first of many, because it will be so fun and [I think it will be] a very big movie” (noting that the ‘many’ seems to relate to video game movies as opposed to Uncharted movies, but time will tell).
So finally a little optimistic note to end on as it seems that although we’re not hearing an awful lot of news, one of the producers sounds awfully upbeat about the state of the Uncharted movie, so here’s hoping that whether it turns out to be Uncharted, Deus Ex or Assassin’s Creed, that the first truly great video game movie could finally be in sight.